Artists Caught in the Battle Over Sexual Imagery in Public Spaces

Los Angeles-based artist Kristen Liu-Wong has gained a following for her neon-colored illustrations and paintings featuring scenes that are at times sexual, at times violent or futuristic, or a combination of the three.

So when online sex toy retailer Unbound asked her to create an advertisement for the New York City subway, she agreed, and created a vibrant but toned-down scene in her unmistakable style. It featured a woman lounging in her bedroom with everyday items like shoes and a Chinese takeout container scattered everywhere, including unmarked images of toys, lube and other sexual wellness products.

The woman in Liu-Wong’s illustration is fully clothed. Work by other artists slated to be featured, including Laura Callaghan, Loveis Wise, Robin Eisenberg and Yoko Yonda, also include strategic body coverage. But to Liu-Wong’s disappointment, Unbound said the ads haven’t been accepted by OUTFRONT Media Inc., a company contracted to handle ad sales for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

“I was pretty pissed. I was really hyped about the job so I spent a lot of time on the piece,” said Liu-Wong as she prepared for a show at Superchief Gallery in Brooklyn, which will be open until August 16. “I covered her up. I put clothes on her. I know when to restrain myself.”

Advertisement submitted to the MTA by Unbound, featuring art by Kristen Liu-Wong.

Unbound publicized the images, sparking a wave of media coverage and outcry over what critics alleged was censorship over women’s pleasure. Some argued the Unbound ads were no more sexual than ads for erectile dysfunction drugs, or the “Still a Virgin?” billboard ads for the movie “The Virginity Hit,” which caused a stir in 2010. Others support the elimination of overtly sexual imagery from public spaces, where children can be present.

The response underscores growing tensions over how to classify sexual imagery. Research suggests attitudes about sexuality and sexual imagery have shifted over the years, but there isn’t an abundance of data. In 2014, market research firm YouGov published a survey of nearly 1,000 people in the U.S., in which more than half of respondents said they felt Americans were too easily offended by matters of sex or nudity. Even with data to suggest views are changing, however, it’s unclear what the threshold should be for deciding what is appropriate for general audiences.

Market researchers predict growing demand for products like the ones featured in sold by Unbound. Sales of sexual wellness products are expected to grow an average of 13.4% a year to $123 billion by 2026, according to Statistics MRC. But artists, authors and sexual wellness companies say limits on their ability to advertise online and offline hurt the growth of their businesses.

Following the outcry over their ads, Unbound co-founder Sarah Jayne Kinney said the MTA reached out to the company and “essentially told us that they would work with us, [but] we didn’t necessarily get carte blanche. We were told that they would be open to running the ads if we would remove all phallic objects from the artwork.” This reasoning “seems impossible to me given the Hims ads that are all over the subway now featuring sad phallic cacti,” Kinney said, referring to ads for erectile dysfunction pills.

Carly Zipp, spokeswoman for OUTFRONT, said the ad approval process for the MTA is more complex than most people realize. It often includes multiple revision requests, because reviewers have to consider the wide range of perspectives of some 6 million people who ride the subway everyday.

The Hims ads with phallic imagery were an example of a concept that went through many revisions before being approved for display, she said, adding that the vetting process is necessary in part to help advertisers. OUTFRONT, which has been embroiled in controversy before, including over ads for THINX period underwear a few years ago, will sometimes advise advertisers of potential negative reactions. When this happens, the ads may have to be taken down at the cost of the advertiser, she said.

Photo Credit: Willie Davis

When asked if there were a process to challenge content decisions, Zipp said OUTFRONT will sometimes consult groups of people to better understand public opinion on certain content, though this isn’t part of a formal appeal process.

OUTFRONT doesn’t always shy away from controversial ads, both related and unrelated to sexuality. It was working with the MTA in 2015 when Amazon plastered the subway with imagery Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan imagery to promote the “The Man in the High Castle” series—ads that Amazon eventually pulled.

Kinney said she believes there is bias in the choosing of which types of controversial imagery or messaging pass muster. “The level of sensitivity around this is because it’s not centering male pleasure,” she said. “The objection comes into play when it isn’t catering to the male gaze…it’s imagery we’re not used to seeing in public spaces and, as a society, we’re quite comfortable censoring and shaming [it].”

Unbound is deciding how to proceed. “We’ve considered taking out the phallic objects, [like] the bullet vibrator and Gem, our glass dildo, and seeing if the art still looks the way we’d like it to,” she said. “We’re a small business and to make the investment of subway ads, we really need to make sure we see the original intention of the ad.”

MTA spokesman Shams Tarek did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article, but another spokesman previously told The New York Times it “has always and will continue to ensure that our policies are applied evenly and fairly.” A copy of the MTA’s ad policy published online says the public benefit corporation “will not accept any advertisement” that depicts not only nudity, but “a patently offensive manner sexual or excretory activities so as to satisfy the definition of obscene material” by New York law.

A read of the legal definition of “obscene” in New York is no more specific. It declares that something is obscene if “the average person, applying contemporary community standards,” would find the material offensive. The words appear to leave room for cultural change, but are still highly subjective.

Neither policy states anything about phallic objects.

Watch the interview with Kristen in Brooklyn and see samples of her work.

For her part, Liu-Wong said the MTA incident shows there is “obviously a double standard.” “I rode the subway for 6 years, so I’ve seen what kind of ads get approved,” she said. There’s “the boob job ads, where it’s like, ‘Dream big’ and it’s giant breasts…that’ just so insulting to tell a woman to ‘dream big, make your tits bigger.’”

“I really thought since there was no overt sex happening in any of the pieces, and they were all illustrated, there was no nudity, that it would get approved,” she said.

Liu-Wong, 26, who is originally from San Francisco and studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, is no stranger to challenging the standards for breast. The characters in her illustrations and paintings have appeared in a variety of body shapes and shades, but started out (as she describes) “stickish” earlier in her career. People commented that her work was sexy, but she meant for it to be asexual.

Her work evolved with her sexuality, however, and gradually, Liu-Wong said she embraced the label. “As I’ve gotten older, I’m not only more comfortable with my own sexuality but also with that being reflected in my paintings. If someone calls my work sexy now, it’s like, ‘Yea, it’s supposed to be.’”

Still, it’s “harder to get more commercial jobs because I do paint more explicit stuff,” and even clients familiar with her work have asked her to tone it down, “which I get,” Liu-Wong said. “Not everyone needs a giant vagina everywhere, all the time.” She now also strategically places emojis over nipples and vulvas to prevent her work from being taken down on Instagram, where she gets most of her leads for work.

There is one line she will not cross, however. “I’ve had clients who don’t really like the shape of how I draw breasts, because I draw them kind of pointy, and I guess they wanted round. But I don’t change the shape of my breasts, ok? That stays.”

This article was done in collaboration with Math Magazine.

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